ORILLIA - OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes says his provincial force faces a number of daunting issues — from increased cyber crime to homegrown terrorism — but number one is how to best deal with people who have mental health issues.
“The training of police officers to understand one mental illness versus another mental illness and how do you deal with some of those challenges and understanding that component of mental health, that’s huge,” Hawkes said in an hour-long interview with the Star.
High-profile cases of police coming into contact with people who have mental-health issues with deadly consequences have resulted in forces across the country focusing on training officers to identify different mental illnesses and use that knowledge to de-escalate situations.
Hawkes — a 30-year veteran who was named commissioner in February, replacing Chris Lewis — said training the 6,500 officers is by no means an easy task given the diverse nature of a force patrolling a very large province.
“The Toronto police have a crisis intervention model where they bring in expertise in the car,” Hawkes said.
In Toronto, mental health workers are on call if police need to access them, and they can also ride along with officers in their cars. “But that’s not going to work in Kenora so we are going to have a different solution in Kenora for that,” Hawkes said.
“Could we do a better job at training? Yes . . . we are trying to do more.”
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police earlier this year also identified mental health as the most pressing issue facing police forces across the country.
While mostly anecdotal, OPP officers report coming into contact with a greater number of people who have mental health issues in large part because institutional facilities have closed their doors.
In 2012, the OPP responded to over 27,000 occurrences involving 7,192 people identified in the OPP’s Niche Records Management System (RMS) as “mentally disordered.” According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
“If the greatest priority item is mental health, then the question is what do we do from that perspective?” Hawkes said.
Sgt. Judy Alton, vulnerable persons co-ordinator for the OPP, said the goal is to ensure that at least one officer on every shift at all 165 detachments has taken the voluntary 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training. The course is based on a model developed in Memphis, Tenn.
“It is a provincial police academy course now . . . it is an accredited (course) now,” she said.
Alton said for the first two or three days, officers go over different signs and symptoms for different mental illnesses — psychosis, schizophrenia, and dementia.
“We are not trying to make them psychiatrists in blue. We are just trying to give them some more information so that they will be able to identify somebody if they are in a mental health crisis. In this training, we really stress the de-escalation portion of it,” she said, noting the program includes scenarios.
Alton said once the situation is dealt with, the officer will “tap into the community resources that are available because a lot of time these people are reaching out . . .”
Alton logs a lot of kilometres travelling around the province, accompanied by Sarah Burtenshaw, a mental-health worker in Hamilton, where she also works with Hamilton’s 24-hour mobile team, the Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST), paired with an officer.
She said so far the team has trained about 540 officers, many of them who have a “keen interest in mental health.” Alton, who graduated from Brock University with a double major in psychology and sociology, shares that interest.
Inspector Scott Smith of the South Bruce Detachment, who also has a university degree in psychology and 30 years on the job, has put off his retirement so he can make sure that dealing appropriately with mental illness is a priority.
“We are coming into more and more contact with those who have some sort of mental health issues,” he said, adding that a vast majority of officers feel confident dealing with people with mental health issues.
“This has really caused me to focus in on how I can help our people before I leave the organization and retire . . . how can I help our people respond empathetically toward those with mental illness.”